Archives For Preaching Hell

How We Go to Hell

Jason Micheli —  August 20, 2013 — 3 Comments

rich_man_and_lazarusIn my church, we’ve got a steady stream of people who come in off the street, asking for ‘assistance.’

Money.

A lot of times- maybe it’s the time I spent working in a prison- my cynicism gets the better of me and I sense a shakedown.

Other times- maybe it’s the time I’ve spent in Guatemala learning both the damage of charity and the value of empowerment- I rationalize that ‘helping’ in this case won’t really help at all. It’ll just perpetuate the problem.

And 9/10 I’m probably correct in both those former thoughts, which would be fine if I wasn’t stuck dealing with Jesus on a daily basis.

Because my work makes it impossible for me to ignore Jesus- try as I may- I’m haunted texts like this:

‘There was a rich man who was dressed in purple and fine linen and who feasted sumptuously every day. And at his gate lay a poor man named Lazarus, covered with sores, who longed to satisfy his hunger with what fell from the rich man’s table; even the dogs would come and lick his sores. The poor man died and was carried away by the angels to be with Abraham.* The rich man also died and was buried. In Hades, where he was being tormented, he looked up and saw Abraham far away with Lazarus by his side.* He called out, “Father Abraham, have mercy on me, and send Lazarus to dip the tip of his finger in water and cool my tongue; for I am in agony in these flames.” But Abraham said, “Child, remember that during your lifetime you received your good things, and Lazarus in like manner evil things; but now he is comforted here, and you are in agony. Besides all this, between you and us a great chasm has been fixed, so that those who might want to pass from here to you cannot do so, and no one can cross from there to us.” He said, “Then, father, I beg you to send him to my father’s house— for I have five brothers—that he may warn them, so that they will not also come into this place of torment.” Abraham replied, “They have Moses and the prophets; they should listen to them.” He said, “No, father Abraham; but if someone goes to them from the dead, they will repent.” He said to him, “If they do not listen to Moses and the prophets, neither will they be convinced even if someone rises from the dead.” ’ – Lk 16

 

Did you know: Jesus talks about Hell more than Paul, Peter, Isaiah, Daniel and Ezekiel combined?

Did you know that in St. Luke’s Gospel Jesus is constantly talking about money?

To understand this parable you need to know that it’s not told in a vacuum. This isn’t just an isolated, independent story. It has context.

You need to know who Jesus is talking to here. You need to know that Jesus tells this story to the Pharisees, the wealthy religious leaders who have been standing on the sidelines, sneering sarcastically. By the time you get chapter 16, they’re openly mocking and ridiculing Jesus.

Now, to really hear this parable you also need to understand how the Pharisees read scripture. For the Pharisees, wealth and possessions and material prosperity were signs of God’s blessing and favor. Today we call their way of thinking the ‘prosperity gospel.’ If you can picture the Pharisees as a bunch of grumpy-faced Joel Osteens– minus the capped teeth- then you’ve got the right idea.

For the Pharisees, if you HAD it was because God gave it to you…because you deserved it. So if you didn’t have it was because, well, in God’s eyes you didn’t deserve it.

In other words, for the Pharisees money was not a means to some other good, it was a good in itself. It was a possession. It was a sign that God had found favor with you.

Money was not a means to further God’s Kingdom it was instead a sign that God’s Kingdom had blessed you over others. And, just like Joel Osteen, the Pharisees found plenty of scripture to justify themselves.

And then this Jesus comes along, and he doesn’t conform to what they think a religious person does or what a rabbi looks like. mark-burnett-and-joel-osteen-an-epic-meeting

And they hear this Jesus say things like:

  • “Blessed are you who are poor, for the Kingdom of God will be yours, but woe to you who are rich for you have already received your consolation.”

  • “Whoever would follow me, first go and sell all that you own.”

  • “Do not worry about your wardrobe or your budget or you house or your groceries. Worry only about furthering God’s Kingdom and God will take care of everything you need.”

  • “If your wealth’s not serving God’s Kingdom, then you’re serving your wealth. You can’t serve both of them, Money and God.”

And that’s when they start to sneer. You see, for the Pharisees, Jesus wasn’t just different, he was dangerous. It’s not simply that Jesus didn’t conform to their expectations; it’s that he would change everything about the way they lived their lives. Jesus would invite God into parts of their lives where they didn’t want him.

So in verse 14, the Pharisees start to mock Jesus, ridicule him, hoping to diminish him in the eyes of the crowd. And Jesus, since he’s Jesus, responds by telling a story.

I normally hate people who explain stories, but Jesus’ parable is too pregnant with subtlety and meaning to do otherwise.

Verse 19- “There was a rich man…”

The parable Jesus tells is actually a storied version of what he preached in his sermon on the plain: ‘Blessed are you who are poor/Woe to you who are rich…You’ll get the Kingdom/You’ve already gotten your reward.” Jesus begins his parable by laying a trap for his hearers. He says: there was a rich man who wore the kind of clothes you can’t find in a store, clothes only Paris Hilton can afford. This rich man ate extravagantly every day.

And already Jesus’ listeners- the Pharisees- already they don’t know where Jesus is going with this. They would hear Jesus describe this man’s threads and his dining table and, just based on that, they would say: ‘This guy has made it made. This man is blessed. This man is righteous.’

Verse 20: “And at his gate lay a poor man named Lazarus…” 

Like many wealthy people, this man has isolated himself from the rest of the world, from the needs of others. Jesus says the rich man lives in his very own gated community. Outside the rich man’s gate, lay a poor man.

The word your bibles translate as ‘lay’ actually in Greek means ‘dumped.’

This poor man outside the rich man’s gate was dumped there by someone else.

So not only was he poor, he was probably crippled too.

You will see that Jesus sets up the poor man as a mirror contrast to the rich man. The rich man is covered with fine linen, the poor man is covered with open sores. The rich man feasts opulently every day, the poor man begs for what falls from the rich man’s table- and Jesus doesn’t just mean scraps of food. In Jesus’ day, the wealthy would eat with their hands and then, rather than a napkin, they would wipe the grease off their hands with a piece of bread. Then they would dump the piece of bread onto the floor.

The poor man’s not begging for leftovers or scraps. He’s literally begging for the rich man’s trash. Instead Jesus says dogs from the alley treat him like garbage, licking his open wounds- which, just to add insult to injury, makes the man ritually impure. Evidently, the poor man is too weak to even scare off the dogs.

The poor man is a contrast to the rich man in every way. As much as the rich man has, the poor man lacks that much more. Just as the Pharisees would’ve assumed that the rich man was blessed, this poor man- they’d say- was cursed. He must have done something to deserve his life.

But Jesus sets up an even more striking contrast. Notice: the rich man doesn’t have a name, but the poor man does. Lazarus.

The poor man’s name means ‘God is my helper.’

You can even translate it: ‘God is on my side.’

In all of Jesus’ parables, in all four of the Gospels, Lazarus is the only character with a proper name. The rich man has everything, but he doesn’t have a name. The poor man has nothing, but he does have a name. What’s Jesus getting at?

The rich man is nothing more than his possessions; what he has is all that he has. He’s built his identity around his possessions so that he has no identity apart from them.

This is Jesus saying that if you don’t build your primary identity around God, you don’t really have a ‘you.’

You’re defined instead by your stuff, success, things, title, job, or rank. Like any story, Jesus wants you to wonder who you are in the story. Do you have a name? Do you have an identity rooted in God? Is there a you beneath your material life? Are you about something bigger than you?

Verses 21-22: “The poor man died…” 

Death comes to both men, Jesus says. No one tries to save Lazarus’ life, but neither can the rich man’s wealth protect him from death. The rich man is buried because he can afford it. Lazarus is not because he cannot. Probably his body just lay abandoned in the alley until it was scavenged by dogs, burnt or carried off to a dump. In Jesus’ day, not to receive a burial was considered a mark of shame, a sign of being cursed by God.

Instead of shame, Lazarus is carried off by angels while the rich man, Jesus says, goes to Hell.

Verse 23- “In Hell, where he was being tormented…” 

I imagine this is the point in the story where Jesus really had the Pharisees’ attention.

Sometimes people will ask me: ‘You don’t believe in a literal Hell, do you? With literal flames and physical torment?’

And to be surly, sometimes I respond by saying: ‘Oh no, I think Hell is much worse than that.’

Today’s parable gets at what I mean when I say that. Probably, most of you all have in your minds a caricature of Hell.

Hell, you probably think, is a place God sends people against their will for some sin or lack of faith they committed. Hell, in other words, is where God sends such people and shuts the door and closes off any chance for them to repent.

And maybe you even think God enjoys the justice of it.

Now compare that to Jesus’ parable. According to scripture, no one’s trying to get out of Hell- that’s what makes it Hell. According to scripture, you’re only in Hell as long as you choose.

Hell according to Jesus isn’t a place God sends people. Hell is us holding onto our freely chosen but false identities. Look at verse 24 to see what I mean.

Verse 24- “Father Abraham have mercy on me, and send Lazarus…” 

So, he’s in Hell. Notice what the rich man doesn’t ask for:

  • He doesn’t ask to get out.
  • He doesn’t ask for forgiveness.
  • He doesn’t ask for God’s presence.

What does he do? He says: ‘Father Abraham, it’s kind of hot here. Send Lazarus to bring me some water.’ Those of you who are perceptive, close readers will notice something: the rich man knows Lazarus’ name. It’s not that Lazarus was hungry and begging outside the rich man’s gate and the rich man was ignorant of his need. No, he knows his name. The rich man ignored him. It’s not that he didn’t know. He didn’t see Lazarus as someone worth the expense of his time or his wealth.

‘Father Abraham,’ the rich man says, ‘send Lazarus to bring me some water.’ Even in Hell, the rich man still sees Lazarus as an object, as someone who should serve him.

In other words, he doesn’t see Lazarus at all because, even in Hell, the rich man still clings to his false, material identity.

He still thinks his stuff makes him something above others.

Verse 27-28: “…send Lazarus to my father’s house…” 

Skip down to verse 27. The rich man still shows no repentance. He still doesn’t ask to leave. He still sees Lazarus as someone who exists only to serve him.

“Send Lazarus to my father’s house,” asks the rich man, “send Lazarus to warn my brothers so that they won’t end up here too.” Now the rich man is worried about his brothers, but he has yet to realize that his problem, his sin, is that he never saw- still doesn’t see- Lazarus as his brother. The rich man goes to Hell not because he’s rich but he’s let his wealth pull down the shades on his brother’s need.

Actually, the rich man’s not really concerned about his five brothers either. Look again at what the rich man says in verses 27-28: “Send Lazarus to warn my brothers so that this doesn’t happen to them.”

What’s the implication of the rich man’s request? He’s saying: ‘I didn’t know this was going to happen to me. This isn’t fair. My judgment’s unjust.’

Verse 29: “They have Moses and the prophets…” 

In effect, in verse 29, Abraham replies to the rich man: ‘You don’t need special signs from God to know what God wants with you in the world. What are you waiting for? God has told you again and again, in Exodus and Leviticus and Deuteronomy and Amos and Hosea and Micah and Zephaniah and Malachi and Isaiah and Jeremiah.

God has told you over and again that you’re to care for the poor. You’re to lift up the lowly and bring your brother to the Table. That’s what the Kingdom of God looks like.’

Verse 30: “…if someone goes to them from the dead…” 

But the rich man doesn’t give up. He says: ‘Still, if you send Lazarus back from the dead, then you will get my brothers’ attention and they’ll repent.’

Verse 31: “…neither will they be convinced…” 

You know…some people are scared of fire and brimstone. But scares me…what’s terrifying about the way Jesus ends his story is his warning that we can believe more in the worth of our material lives than we believe in what God finds worth in.

What scares me is Jesus suggesting that we can get so caught up in ourselves, in the importance of our stuff, our possessions, our self-made, false identities.

We can get so caught up in our material lives that not even a message from someone who died and rose again will get us to change.

That, sounds like Hell.

2007_resurrection_icon Scot McKnight has this sermon of mine posted today over at his Jesus Creed blog.
Eastertide is often a season in which the lectionary guides us through texts in Revelation and on reflecting upon how the Cross and Empty Tomb really has once and for all settled what separates us from God. Here’s a reflection from a few years ago on those very themes.

Going to Hell on an Airplane with Sam Harris: Revelation 22.14-20

It was my fault. I knew I should’ve carried on something by John Grisham or David Baldacci or maybe, like everyone else on the plane, The Kite Runner. Instead I’d fallen asleep with the evidence right there on my lap: a theology book, thick and unambiguous, with an unexciting orange cover that plainly, if obscurely, said Church Dogmatics II.1 by Karl Barth.

I’d just woken up after almost an hour not sure if we’d landed already or if we’d not yet taken off. I was out of sorts, my clothes were disheveled and drool was running in a thin, clear line from the corner of my mouth. The motionless plane was as hot and still as a subway car and damp from the rain that was still pelting down on the wings and the runway outside. I was hot and thirsty and stressed, knowing that I would now definitely be late, and, on top of all that, there was this question: ‘So, are you a priest…or a professor?’

It was my fault. I’d initiated conversation. I was the one who made first contact. ‘When she comes by again can you ask her for some water?’ I’d said. And the man in aisle seat said‘Sure’ and then pointed with his eyes at the boring-looking book that had slid off my lap into the buffer seat between us and with a raised brow he asked: ‘So, are you a priest…?’

I was not long into my ministry when I first discovered that there were simply some occasions in life that my job changed irrevocably for the worse, certain occasions when the disclosure ‘I’m a Methodist minister’ either stops conversation cold or else starts other unwanted conversations.

At parties, for instance, no one wants to find out you’re a minister. People don’t know how to talk to a minister or what to talk about and everyone looks painfully awkward when the minister sees them with a drink in their hands.

And when you’re a minister getting a haircut can be more time-consuming and far less predictable than it is for the rest of you. It’s not uncommon that before my sideburns are trimmed or neck shaven, I’m hearing a confession or offering consolation or sinking into the quicksand of some philosophical bull session.

One such haircut at my last church ended up with me sitting there in the barber’s chair with the apron around my neck and little clipped hairs stuck to my nose and forehead and eyebrows and with the barber sitting in the chair next to me, leaning over with his hand on my knee while crying and telling me about the wife who’d left him years ago.

It happens all the time.

On such occasions I’ve considered that it would be easier if, when asked what it is that I do, I instead, like George Costanza, simply made things up: ‘I’m an architect’ I could say. ‘I’m a marine biologist’ I could tell the woman at the Hair Cuttery. And that would be that. To this list of awkward occasions, I can now add Riding on Planes.

‘So, are you a priest…or a professor?’ It was my fault. I was flying Southwest so I’d chosen my seat. I had no one to blame but myself. I’d chosen to sit next to him: a business-looking type, someone with lots of files and a laptop and blackberry, someone who wouldn’t want to pass the time making conversation with a stranger.

On that weekday flight he looked like half of all the other passengers: forty-fifty, graying neatly-parted hair, blue suit and red tie loosened around his white collar. It was last October and I was flying from Baltimore to Ohio for a conference that concerned Aldersgate’s ministry in Cambodia.

‘I’m a Methodist minister’ I said, kicking myself for not buying a copy of the The Kite Runner. ‘Really,’ he said in a less than impressed tone, ‘my sister-in-law’s still a Christian.’Thus implying that he’d been inoculated against whatever superstition still infected his sister-in-law.

From there the conversation began as these conversations always do: ‘You look so young to be a minister’; ‘How did you decide to do that with your life?’; ‘Did you always know or did you have an experience?’

And after these questions were answered, those parts of my story vaguely answered, he asked me if I read the recently released book Letter to a Christian Nation by Sam Harris. I said that I had not but that I knew of it. I’d read a review or heard some NPR chat about it. With sudden vigor, he told me what a ‘powerful’ book it was.

Then, in the urgent rhythms of a beat poet, he told me how effectively Sam Harris’ book documented:

· all the abuses committed in the name of religion

· how it catalogued the many sins of the Church

· skewered Christianity’s historic fear of science

· revealed the inconsistencies in scripture and the often violent portrayals of God.

For what seemed like forever and with judgment in his voice, he shared these ‘insights’ with me. At some during his diatribe I realized that he was actually angry at me- that I was to him not a person but a symbol, a reminder of something he’d closed the door on long ago.

When he finished his book review, he took a breath and cast a glance down at my book,Church Dogmatics, and he said in a woebegone way ‘But you probably wouldn’t like it. My sister-in-law didn’t.’

‘Actually, I’m an architect’ I thought about telling him.

‘It’s not that I’m an atheist’ he said almost like a peace offering, ‘I just couldn’t believe in a god who sends all but a few of his creatures to Hell.’

‘Neither could I’ I said.

The captain’s voice crackled over the speaker, informing us that our delay would last a bit longer. ‘Do you though…believe in hell?’ he asked. And what I thought was: ‘Yes, I do. Hell is being asked questions like these while sitting captive on a hot, motionless plane.’

But I said was: ‘I don’t preach much about it or the devil either. They always end up sounding more interesting than God. And that can’t be true.’

He looked at me skeptically. ‘At my parent’s church, growing up, that’s all I ever heard,’he sighed, ‘fire and brimstone, judgment and hell, that sort of thing.’

To be honest, I didn’t really believe me at first. It sounded too cliché.

‘When I was finally done with all that,’ he said, ‘we had a youth rally at the church one night. We were supposed to invite all our non-church friends. The pastor came and he told them that if they were all to die that night all of them would be going to hell forever. The pastor said the ultimate question was whether you would spend eternity in heaven or in hell. It left a bad taste in my mouth. I just decided then that I couldn’t believe in a god who would do that.’

‘When I was in college I was rejected as a Young Life leader,’ I told him, ‘the director made that same sort of comment in my interview, and I questioned him on it.’

The man in the aisle seat looked at me, like I had surprised him. It was quiet for a few moments. ‘We’re not all like that you know, fire and brimstone’ I offered.

‘But it is part of your bible’ he hit back, waiting for a response.

‘Well, if the universe is moral, if God is just, then it makes sense that God punishes sin’ I argued, proud of my fortress-like logic. ‘But eternal punishment seems excessive don’t you think? Even for the worst of sins.’

‘Christians have different understandings’ I said. ‘Some think hell is a finite time of punishment or refining. Others think of it as annihilation- you just cease to exist.’

‘But what I’ve never understood… if God is all-loving and all-powerful why would things turn out differently than he wanted?’

That’s when I began to suspect he was a lawyer and not a businessman.

I didn’t answer him. I was too tired.

Tired of being put on the defensive

Tired of having to represent all of Christianity-good and bad

Tired of fielding arguments he’d obviously decided before he ever sat down on the plane

And I was tired of trying to wrap my mind around what the bible says about judgment and what it says about the love and mercy of Christ.

He just shifted his legs and took a breath, and I could tell he wasn’t finished yet.

One of the other things I learned early in my ministry is that the fastest way to shut down these sorts of conversations is for me to start talking like a pastor, in a probing, overly empathic way. ‘Tell me,’ I said, ‘what does give your life meaning? Are you satisfied? Is your life worthwhile? Or is just for you?’

And all of a sudden he look frightened- like I was about to proselytize him.

And that could’ve been the end of our conversation.

But instead I sat up in my too-small seat and picked up my orange theology book, and I explained to him that the mistake preachers and others make is thinking hell is God’s last word on sin. ‘The Cross is God’s last word’ I said, ‘the Cross really does reconcile everything that’s wrong between God and each of us.’

He was about to argue with me, I could tell. But I didn’t let him. I went on and told him:

• that whatever distance there is between God and us that it’s distance we put there ourselves

• that ‘Hell’ is the Church’s name for that distance and that you can suffer that in this life as easily as in any other

• that ‘Hell’ is not so much God’s unchanging decision about us as much as it is our self-imposed exile from the life that God makes possible.

And he looked at me as you all do when I’m preaching: a bit dazed and not quite tracking.

So I told him:

That when Jesus talks about hell, he does so by comparing heaven to a wedding feast to which everyone is invited. The problem isn’t with the party or the party-giver or the number of invitations sent. It’s with our unwillingness to come.

And even at the very end of the bible, in the very last chapter, after the Last Judgment has already happened and all the wicked and sinners and unrighteous and unbelievers have all supposedly perished in the Lake of Fire, even after all that- the bible gives us this last picture of the saints of God staring through heaven’s open gates at those still on the outside and along with the Holy Spirit they sing: “Come.”

Hell’s not so much a place we’re sent; so much as it is a place we refuse to leave when we’ve been invited to something more beautiful.

He smiled slightly, and I knew he thought that I was soft-selling the whole fire and brimstone thing. ‘My parents’ preacher would say the ultimate question is whether you’ll spend eternity in heaven or hell’ he countered.

I told him that actually I tend to think the ultimate question is: ‘Are you thirsty? Or, are you hungry? Are you lost? Or, are you empty? Because God doesn’t just offer eternal life, he invites us to live this life abundantly.’

I thought that was that, that he was done, that I’d left him tired or confused or disappointed.

He turned to face forward and he looked up at the air vent and the seatbelt sign above him.

And after a few moments he told me that he was divorced. That at first he was just trying to build a career but that his work had killed his marriage and that now he let it keep him from his children too.

He told me that he traveled all the time but that his life had no direction, that it was true that he no longer believed in his parent’s faith, but that he hadn’t found anything else in its place either.

‘I guess you’d say I’m lost’ he said.

He then looked over at me as if for a response. ‘Maybe, but if Jesus really is the beginning and end of everything, then his mercy is everlasting and he’ll never stop looking for you.’

‘Thus endeth the sermon’ I said and closed my eyes.

And he didn’t say anything for a long while.

And somewhere, the Spirit and the bride said: ‘Come.’

I know some of you many of you probably don’t like Woody Allen. I do.

After all, no one ever refuses to view a Picasso because he was a messed up perv so why should one throw Woody Allen’s art into the rubbish bin?

One of his funny later movies is Deconstructing Harry, in which Allen plays Harry, a writer who descends to Hell to take back the girlfriend who has left him for a rival author (Billy Crystal), here imagined as Satan.

It’s a funny scene that in a lot of ways matches up with our medieval pictures of hell. Warning: This contains OFFENSIVE and CRUDE humor.